WITH ONE exception I have always gotten along fairly well with my employers, supervisors, and bosses. The one exception was in my first job after being graduated from high school. Actually, it was my second, the first was washing dishes all night, every night, for two weeks in a 24-hour diner, but the less said about that, the better.
I had been a soda jerk through the last three years of high school. I worked from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on school days, all day Saturday, and every other Sunday. I think I averaged 50 hours per week and, if my memory is correct, was paid $6 per week. Lest I leave the wrong impression, I should say that many boys envied me, and I felt quite lucky to have such a job.
The owner of the soda fountain though somewhat short of temper was incapable of a direct confrontation and any criticism of his employees was so roundabout as to be indecipherable. There must have been room for criticism, because the other soda jerk and I considered customers to be nuisances and delighted in confounding them. But then so did the boss, in his way. He hated to make bacon and tomato sandwiches and for that reason charged 25¢ for them. Customers who had failed to note the price on the menu frequently wanted to argue about such an unexpected blow. Since the boss would then hide in the kitchen I was the usual target of their protest. I could readily sympathize with them. A quarter for a sandwich!
My co-worker would do such things as make a milkshake using buttermilk and then argue with the customer who complained that his milkshake didn’t taste right. My own transgressions were small. Those were the days of the fountain Coke plus an added flavor. If six people ordered Cokes, you’d have a chocolate, a plain, a vanilla, a lime, a strawberry, and even an ammonia Coke. If more than two people were ordering, I never made any attempt to associate any particular flavor with a person but simply let them sort them out by trial and error. Often I simply made them all alike.
Thus when I applied for the job which I’m going to tell you about, I had three years of experience but perhaps not the best of training. Some of my other characteristics were an inbuilt proclivity to be a smart aleck and, though God knows why, a considerable cockiness.
Why did I want a job in the big city at the Kangle Soda Shoppe? Simply because they followed the Minimum Wage Law. At that time only the wages of women and minors came under the Minimum Wage Law, and the minimum legal wage was 25¢ per hour. How then did my former employer get away with paying much less? For one thing, I doubt if he knew there was a Minimum Wage Law, but if he had, I doubt if he would have let the government tell him how much to pay an employee.
Two whole dollars for one day’s work! This turned out to be a slight overestimation. I did not then know about deductions. There was social security, 32¢ per meal, 50¢ a week for uniforms, and the one that absolutely stunned me – $1.50 for anticipated tips. (Recently in Washington, waitresses at Emersons, a chain restaurant, went on strike because their deductions were so high. They have gotten into the curious position in which their deductions are more than their wages. All this really means is that their salary is negligible in comparison to their tips, but I can feel empathy with their attitude that it’s unfair.) Reflect that $1.50 was six hours of my labor, almost a whole day’s work. I did receive more than that in tips, but it never ceased to rankle.
At that time, teenagers, the few who left a dime, often thought it smart to embed their coins in the remains of their ice cream. If I removed their dishes while they could watch me, I would scrape their coins into the garbage with no indication that I had seen them. Otherwise I would retrieve them. The next time an offender came in, I would make his Coke or soda about half strength. Some people were very close to Harry Golden’s “For 2¢ Plain.” I did not punch pinholes in their straws as my co-worker did.
But I suspect I’m avoiding telling you about Mrs. Kangle, owner of the shop, and my exceptional boss. Our first meeting was not propitious, my heart sank when I saw her. At first glance she looked manufactured. Her obviously dyed, black hair was tightly waved all over her head, icy blue eyes peered sharply through rimless glasses. Her face was round and full and just beginning to show signs of her fifty years or so. She was big, her figure seemed to be entirely the result of an unimaginable corset under enormous strain. Every visible surface looked as hard as iron, and through her uniform one could see outlines of straps and cables and braces. One had the feeling that if one of these should break, she might well swell up to twice her nearly four-foot circumference. But she also looked enormously strong and tough. When I first saw her I thought, “Gad, if she had a blade, she’d make a good bulldozer.”
It always makes me a little nervous to be around women of great physical strength. It’s because I believe women to be less predictable than men. Big men are generally peaceable and good humored, but I’m always a little afraid that a big woman will break me across her knee or something. My only experience was, however, quite contrary. When I was in the seventh grade I was small for my age, but I had an amazon girl friend who would slap silly any boy or girl who gave me trouble.
Mrs. Kangle talked to me pleasantly enough and agreed I should start work the next day. Just as I was feeling a little better about her, she said, “All the boys who have worked for me call me ‘Mom.’ Jimmy, the boy on the day shift calls me ‘Mom Kangle.’ You can call me either one.”
Now I knew I was in trouble. I had never in my life called anybody “Mom,” and I wasn’t about to start with her. Also I believed then, and now, that wanting strangers to call you “Mom” is a bad sign. And obviously if someone persists in calling you “Mrs. Kangle” after you have invited him to call you “Mom,” he is clearly being deliberately antagonistic. So we started off on the wrong foot and went downhill from there (to mix metaphors).
One of the difficulties was that the conflict was seldom open but lurked just under the surface, so I worked under a cloud of perceptible, but undefined, disapproval.
One of the few plain warnings I can remember was the time she spotted a hair in a wet glass and told me, “One of these times, you’ll serve a drink with a hair in it and you’ll be ruined.” For years when I heard of a ruined man or woman, I did not think of financial disaster nor of defloration, but would think, “He (or she) served a Coke with a hair in it.”
Just as a dishwasher inevitably breaks dishes, a soda jerk breaks glasses. Not only did she charge me a dime for each glass I broke, if she saw me, but she would grumble for half an hour about my clumsiness. Since I was sure she was making a profit on the glasses I did not like to listen to her complaints. I found a way to cut them off. When she was finished complaining about a broken glass, I would break another one. Eventually I reduced her remonstrations to a silent, baleful glare.
This did not prevent her discussing my shortcomings with her daughter. They would sit together by the cash register and talk as if I were deaf. The daughter was a half-scale version of the momma. Half as old, half as heavy, half the circumference, but not half as hard looking. Where the old lady made me think of “Old Ironsides” the daughter was soft as a goose-down pillow. She looked just like a carnival “Kewpie” doll. Even without her mother as an example, one could see that at any moment she might double in weight and become a feather bed instead of a pillow.
Margaret’s goal in life, fully shared by her mother, was to bring some unfortunate man to the point of proposing marriage. She and her mother discussed possibilities with the delicacy of vultures. Neither of them seemed to be troubled about such things as love or even affection, the big thing was to get a qualified male to ask the question. Qualifications were mainly financial but did include a measure of presentability and position in the community. They had high hopes for one man in particular and spent endless hours dissecting the situation. For a while, I felt some sympathy for their intended victim, whom I never saw, but finally decided that anyone who wanted Margaret surely deserved her and her mother.
I seldom saw Jimmy, the other soda jerk, because our shifts were not contiguous, but after I had been working for a couple months, he was, one afternoon, changing his clothes when I went in the back to put on my white coat. “Isn’t Mom Kangle wonderful?” he said.
I examined him carefully for any sign of insincerity but observed none. “She’s really something all right,” I said, truthfully. Mrs. Kangle had several times pointed out to me that all the boys who had worked for her were very dear to her, and she continually received cards from former soda jerks, many of whom had gone on to great accomplishments. Clearly, she meant to demonstrate that it was I who was out of step. The evidence seemed to be all on her side, I still cannot explain it. How could my assessment of her be completely wrong?
At first I felt some sympathy for Mr. Kangle. He was a rotund little man of some five feet five whose wind reddened cheeks reminded one of Santa Claus. He worked during the day at some outdoor job, I never knew what, and in the evenings assisted in the soda shop. As far as I could tell, he never volunteered a word to wife or daughter, nor did they say anything unconnected to the fountain work to him, except when the crowd thinned out, at say about 9 p.m., Mrs. Kangle would turn to him and say, “You can go to bed.” He would immediately leave the shop. Both of them were so impassive in their interchanges that I could form no judgment of the relationship – pilot fish and shark was all I could think of, but I may have completely misjudged it.
On Sunday afternoons mother and daughter were generally absent, and Mr. Kangle reigned in the soda shop. In the absence of his wife and his daughter, he developed just enough personality to become repulsive in his own right. He would, for instance, insist that we have certain foods available when I knew we did not, but I would have to take the orders to the kitchen to be told by the annoyed cook what I already knew, we didn’t serve that on Sunday.
I never understood him well enough to know whether he was being dumb or perverse. His brow which in his wife’s presence was unruffled would take on a pale reflection of her disapproval although he never made known to me what he disapproved of. I tried to be sympathetic since I thought he had bigger problems than I did, but my sympathy soon wore thin, and I came to regard him with contempt as I believe his wife and daughter did. I did hope that his other job afforded him more pleasure. In the shop he never laughed, nor smiled, nor talked to anyone.
When I decided to give up my career as a soda jerk and go to college, I gave my two-weeks notice. After a flash of what I took to be disappointment that she hadn’t gotten to fire me, she generously wished me well. On my last day, Mrs. Kangle, echoed by Margaret, insisted that I must write to them often and that I must come to see them whenever I was back in town.
“I will, I will,” I kept repeating, but I didn’t mean it, and I never did.” – JLW
This is the plain, varnished, embroidered truth.
Published and printed by Jake Warner at his private press.
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770